People & Profiles

Stuart Dybek’s journey from Loyola’s library steps to renowned author

By Ray O'Connell

A man wearing a leather jacket and navy T-shirt stands with his hand on his hip in front of a stone wall on the Loyola University Chicago campus with blooming tree branches in the foreground

Before Stuart Dybek (BS ’64, MA ’68) became an author of fiction and poetry, he was just a kid from Chicago’s South Side who grew up roaming the city’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods. He played sports, joined a band, worked at a jazz records store, and started writing. By the time Dybek reached high school, the Cold War was in full swing.

“It was the time of Sputnik, so math and science took up most of the lesson plans,” Dybek recalls. “So, I wrote on my own and for my friends.”

Like most teenagers, Dybek was unsure of what he wanted to do in life. Until he witnessed a car crash, sending him down a new path.

“I was the first one on the scene. It was terrifying.”

That helpless feeling Dybek experienced inspired him to become a doctor. Dybek enrolled at Loyola University Chicago on a pre-med track. Science classes took up most of his schedule, but he still had to complete his core curriculum.

“They put me in remedial English,” Dybek says with a chuckle. “Let me be clear, this wasn’t a writing class, this was a spelling and punctuation class. It changed my life, all because of one professor.”

Professor Dion J. Wilhelmi went above and beyond for his freshmen remedial English class that year, introducing the class to the greats like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and, his personal favorite, Robert Frost.

“My Loyola experience was rich. To put it simply, it did for me what an undergraduate education should do for students, which is to prepare students to be able to educate themselves.”

— Stuart Dybek , Writer and Loyola University Chicago alumnus

“Wilhelmi was a fan of Frost’s poetry and didn’t fully understand the poems of the Modernist movement. But one day he read us lines from T.S. Eliot’s, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’”

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out
     against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…

“The top flew off my head,” Dybek recalls. “The professor sarcastically asked if anyone preferred this type of poetry to Frost’s, and I raised my hand trembling.”

Wilhelmi asked Dybek to stay after class that day.

“He saw something in me and began working with me on my writing,” Dybek says. “A door I didn’t know existed was opened.”

Dybek had a decision to make before his sophomore year: stick with pre-med or follow his passion.

“It was a big decision. My family, of course, wanted me to become a doctor because of the life it would provide me, but I just couldn’t get that literary drive out of my head.”

Dybek hopped in the car and drove to campus from his family’s home in the middle of the summer.

“I walked up the library steps, sat down and looked up at a giant moon over the lake and I says to myself, ‘Well, I am just going to do it.’”

Decades since his decision to commit to his craft on those library stairs, Dybek has authored six critically acclaimed books of fiction, including The Coast of Chicago (1990), a One Book Chicago selection. Critics have ranked him with such American literary giants as Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson. Dybek’s work “move[s] easily between the gritty reality of urban decay,” noted John Breslin in the Washington Post, “and a magical realm of lyricism and transcendence linked to music, art and religion.” Dybek’s awards include a Lannan Prize, a PEN/Malamud Award, a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and an O. Henry Award. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2007.

Dybek credits his Loyola experience for putting him in a position to be successful.

“My Loyola experience was rich. To put it simply, it did for me what an undergraduate education should do for students, which is to prepare students to be able to educate themselves.”

Dybek’s connection to Loyola remains strong. He returned to campus in 2023 as the inaugural speaker for the Alumni Authors Series. The University Libraries’ Alumni Authors Collection currently features more than 1,100 books published by Loyola graduates. It evolved from the alumni authors catalog developed over the past decade by Peter Gilmour, DMin, professor emeritus and Friends of the Libraries advisory board member.

While standing in front of a crowded room on the fourth floor of Information Commons, with a floor-to-ceiling window framing Dybek against the lakefront as a backdrop, he dazzled the group with tales of his time on campus, readings from his published works and his insights into the art of writing.

Irony or foreshadowing? Call it what you want, but the mechanical elements he first learned in the classrooms on Lake Shore Campus were the same themes evoked by Dybek in the same setting in which, 60 years prior, he had chosen to pursue his passion.

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